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In Defense of Irony

Over at The Stone, Christy Wampole diagnoses the malaise of the post-millennial age and suggests a few ways “How to Live Without Irony.” It is a sign of Wampole’s misdiagnosis that her recommended cures sound a lot worse than the disease.

First, the claim:

For many Americans born in the 1980s and 1990s — members of Generation Y, or Millennials — particularly middle-class Caucasians, irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt.   

As a demographic claim, this statement is suspect in all kinds of ways. Of the 80 million or so Generation Yers, about 48 million are white; of those, more than half are middle class. So 25+ million Americans are lost in a fog of irony? Is there no African-American irony to speak of? No real irony of the impoverished, or the affluent?

What evidence supports Wampole’s conclusion about “many” 30-something white people in the United States? She points to a few common traits:

– they ride fixed-gear bicycles
– they brew their own beer and play the trombone
– they sport “mustaches and tiny shorts,” which are “outmoded” fashions  
– they “hide in public” and “dodge responsibility” for their choices


Wampole is not being ironic about her first three complaints, at least not apparently. But what exactly is her substantive complaint about fixed-gear bicycles? The vehicles are not just fodder for parody: they weigh very little, use no gas and are good for getting around town. Home-brewed beer is cheap and potentially delicious. Mustaches keep upper lips toasty. In any case it seems unnecessarily judgmental to condemn hipsters for their sense of style, if that is all they are guilty of.

The harder-hitting cultural critique comes only in the fourth charge: the claim that hipsters are dodging responsibility for their choices and using so many layers of irony as veils to conceal their true identities. I think there may be something to this argument, but Wampole interprets it too gravely. Hiding insecurities through tattoos, faux gas station attendant uniforms or ironic Justin Bieber fan paraphernalia is just the latest mode of emotional deflection. It is a new solution to a perennial problem of human consciousness, and it is usually less dangerous than aggression and — sometimes — cuter than overcompensation  

What is to be done? The bourgeois fussiness of Wampole’s prescription is striking:

Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?

If Wampole wants to rescue a generation from the stagnancy of shiftless irony, directing us to pay attention to our clothes and our tchotchkes is not the most promising tack. A better approach would be preachy in a different way: urging young people to develop ideals and pursue them, whether by engaging with their communities, volunteering, or getting involved in meaningful social or political movements.

But for many hipsters, this sermon is unnecessary. The youth vote in this month’s election reached a historic high. And if the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is any indication, a penchant for home brewing and Victrolas does not despoil a hipster of the social sympathies. Mustachioed vegan young men in corduroy and iPhone-toting 20-something women in dangly earrings were volunteering in abundance at the medical shelter for hurricane evacuees in my neighborhood over the past three weeks, and young people from the Occupy movement have been very generous with their time and resources.

So is irony really such a scourge? It wasn’t in Socrates’ time, and it isn’t today.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie


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